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Marikana miners: The massacre of our illusions

The struggle of miners at the Lonmin mine in South Africa is a turning point in organised workers’ relationship with the now thoroughly neoliberal ANC argues Leonard Gentle, setting the strike in historical and political context

August 25, 2012
15 min read


Leonard Gentle is the director of the International Labour and Research Information Group in South Africa and a former trade union organiser.


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The story of Marikana has so far been painted shallowly as an inter-union spat. In the first few days after the fateful Thursday and the shock and horror of watching people being massacred on TV there have correctly been howls of anger and grief. Of course no one wants to take responsibility because to do so would be to acknowledge blame. Some pundits have even gone the way of warning at anyone ‘pointing figures’ or ‘stoking anger’. That buffoon Julius Malema stepped forward as if scripted and promptly lent credibility to those warnings. So President Zuma’s setting up of an Inquiry and his call for a week of mourning for the deceased and their families could come across as ‘statesmanlike’.

But this is not just a story of hardship, violence and grief. To speak in those terms only would be to add the same insult to injury perpetrated by the police on the striking workers as many commentators have done – that of seeing the striking miners as mere victims and not as agents of their own future and, even more importantly, as a source of a new movement in the making.

The broader platinum belt has been home to new upsurges of struggles over the last 5 years, from the working class community activists of Merafong and Khutsong who drove the then African National Congress (ANC) chairperson Terror Lekota out, to the striking workers of Angloplat, Implat and now Lonmin. These struggles, including the nationwide ‘service delivery’ revolts, are the signs that a new movement is being forged despite the state violence that killed Andries Tatane and massacred the Lonmin workers. Rather than just howl our outrage it is time to take sides and offer our support.

Marikana now joins the ranks of the Sharpeville and Boipatong massacres in the odious history of a method of capital accumulation based on violence. The ANC’s moral legitimacy as the leading force in the struggle for democracy has now been irrevocably squandered and the struggle for social justice has now passed on to a whole new working class – including the workers at Lonmin who went on strike – who are outside the Tripartite Alliance and its constituent parts.

In this sense, after Marikana, things will never be the same again.

Firstly, the killings mark the end of the illusion of a moral high ground occupied by the ANC and the completion of its transformation into the governing party of big capital. For some while now, the ANC could trade on its liberation credits in arguing that all criticism came from quarters who were trying to defend white privilege. The Democratic Alliance (DA), of course, was perfect to be cast in this role because it always attacked the ANC for not being business-friendly enough. NGOs who ramped up the criticism of the ANC’s attacks on the media or freedom of speech could be dismissed as ‘foreign-funded’ or having darkly hidden agendas or being the tools of the liberal onslaught on majority rule.

But Marikana was an attack on workers in defence of white privilege – specifically the mining house, Lonmin. Although it is partly owned by one of Cyril Ramaphosa’s companies, its major shareholders include British investors and ex-South African (and ex-Eskom) Mick Davis’ Xstrata.

In this the ANC steps squarely into the shoes of its predecessors – Apartheid’s Nationalist Party and Smuts’ South African Party – acting to secure the profits of mining capital through violence. This was Bulhoek and Bondelswaarts all over again. This was the setting up of forced recruitment over Southern Africa leading to the dreaded migrant labour system, the compounds and the dompas. This was the stuff of Hugh Masekela’s Stimela.

Always successive governments did what was necessary to ensure a cheap, divided and compliant labour force for the mines. Lonmin epitomises the make-up of the new elite in South Africa – old white capital garnished with a sprinkling of politically-connected blacks in the name of equality.

Secondly the strike and the massacre mark a turning point in the liberation alliance around the ANC – particularly the trade union federation COSATU. Whereas the community and youth wings of what was called the Mass Democratic Movement of the 1980s and 1990s became disgraced by their association with corrupt councillors and eclipsed by the service delivery revolts, COSATU’s moral authority was enhanced after 1994. Within what is called ‘civil society’, COSATU continued to be a moral voice. So anyone who had a campaign – whether challenging the limitations on media freedom or fighting for renewables – sought out COSATU as a partner. This moral authority came because COSATU was simply the most organised voice amongst the working class.

Today COSATU’s links with the working class is only a very tenuous one.

It is almost intuitive that we consider the notion of a worker as someone working for a clearly-defined employer, on a full-time basis, in a large factory, mine or supermarket. Indeed classical industrial trade unions were forged by workers in large factories and industrial areas. This was the case in many countries where such unions won the right to organise and bargain collectively – and was also the case in South Africa, when a new wave of large unions formed industrial unions after the 1973 Durban strikes. And going along with this structure of work were the residential spaces of townships. From the 1950s South African Apartheid increasingly came to accept the de facto existence of a settled urban proletariat – which intensified from the early 1970s – and built the match-box brick houses in the townships of the apartheid era: the Sowetos, Kathlehongs, Tembisas and the like.

So the working class was organised by capitalism into large industrial sites and brick houses in large sprawling townships. The neoliberal phase of capitalism – since the 1980s – has begun to change even this.

Neoliberalism has not only been about privatisation and global speculation. It has also been about restructuring work and home. Today casualisation, outsourcing, homework, labour brokers and other forms of informalisation or externalisation have become the dominant form of work (when work is available at all) and homelessness and shackdwelling the mode of existence of the working class. The latter is in indirect proportion to the withdrawal of the state from providing housing and the services associated with formal housing.

Twenty years ago the underground workers of Lonmin would have lived in a compound provided by and policed by the company. Today the rock drill workers live in a shanty town nearby the mine.

Mining itself has also changed. Much of the serious hard work underground is now done by workers sourced from labour brokers. These are the most exploited and insecure workers who work the longest hours and most flexible arrangements. It is even possible today to own a mine and not work it yourself but to contract engineering firms like Murray and Roberts to do the mining for you. Into the mix are so-called ‘illegal miners’ who literally mine with spades and their own dynamite and then sell on to middle men who themselves have links to big businesses.

Lonmin has exploited these divisions, exacerbated by the old mining industry strategy of recruiting along tribal and regional divisions (the drill workers at Lonmin were known as Xhosas railed in from the Eastern Cape into an area which is largely Tswana-speaking) to heighten exploitation at the coalface of drill workers while making cosy deals with the more skilled and white collar NUM members.

Add to this the toxic mix of mine security, barbed-wire enclosures and informal housing, identified by researchers such as Benchmarks and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.

By way of contrast the dominant trade unions in South Africa have largely moved towards white collar workers and away from this majority. Today the large COSATU affiliates are public sector white collar workers – the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the unions amongst white collar workers in the parastatals – Telkom and Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and Transnet and SATAWU. The lower level blue collar workers are now in labour brokers and in services that have been completely outsourced – like cleaning, security etc, so they do not fall within the bargaining units of the Public Sector Bargaining Council.

The Lonmin strike was second in the last three months to hit the platinum sector. It was preceded by a strike at Implat (and before that at Angloplat). All involved the AMCU as workers sought an outlet for their frustrations. In this sense the recent strike has been simmering for years.

The mining trade journal Miningmix published this story in 2009:

‘One such issue was an agreement signed between the NUM and Implats in 2007, which stipulated a 50% plus one member threshold for recognition – practically making Implats a closed shop where minority unions have no rights. That removed any competition and gave the NUM a monopoly in South Africa’s largest single mining complex. Secondly, and most importantly, a gradual change had taken place in the profile of the NUM membership over the last 15 years; one that nobody had taken notice of. The NUM was originally borne out of the lowest job categories of South African mineworkers, mainly from gold mines. More than 60% of its members were foreigners, mostly illiterate migrant labourers.

‘Nowadays that number has dropped to below 40%. On the other hand, an increasing portion of the NUM’s membership comes from what can be described as white-collar mining staff, who had previously been represented exclusively by Solidarity and UASA. The local NUM structures in Rustenburg, like the branch office bearers and the shop stewards, are dominated by these skilled, higher level workers. They are literate, well spoken and wealthy compared to the general workers and machine operators underground. For instance, there are two NUM branches at Implats – North and South. And the chairpersons at both these branches were beneficiaries of the 18% bonus that sparked the strike. During wage negotiations in September 2011 Implats wanted to give rock-drill operators a higher increase than the rest of the workforce, but a committee of NUM shop stewards demanded the money be split among the whole workforce. Needless to say, there wasn’t a single rock-drill operator on the shop stewards’ committee.’

So while the NUM remains the largest affiliate of COSATU it is moving on from the union of coal-face workers, to a union of white collar above-ground technicians. It is these developments within NUM that led to the formation of the breakaway union – the AMCU. Whatever the credentials of AMCU, its emergence is a direct challenge to the hegemony of NUM and of COSATU. As such the federation has embarked on a disgraceful campaign of slandering the striking workers and their union.

In this they have been joined by the media. With the notable exception of the Cape Times who gave spaces to stories of family members of the dead workers and editorialised on the police and Lonmin’s practices, the media’s culpability in demonising the striking workers has been equally reprehensible. In addition to only quoting NUM sources for information of the strike or focusing on Malema’s opportunism there have been no attempt to dig beneath the idea of manipulated workers and inter-union rivalry.

In general they all painted the rock drillers as uneducated, Basotho or Eastern Cape Xhosas, while flogging the idea of an increase to R12 500 as ‘unreasonable’ (nobody has even bothered to check what rock drill workers actually earn at present).

Then there is the notion that workers went to AMCU because they were promised R12 500. This fiction is repeated endlessly by the media. Journalists are of course happy to source this from (unnamed) NUM sources and are simply too lazy to check with the striking workers themselves, or from AMCU, and do not even observe the most basic principle of saying this is an unsubstantiated allegation coming from NUM sources. The slander here is that workers are so open to manipulation that they will believe any empty promises. This plays to the prejudice – repeated by Frans Baleni of NUM – that rock drill workers are ignorant and uneducated – and it bolsters the idea that AMCU is some kind of slick-willy operation who must take responsibility for the massacre.

No strike decision, let alone such a strike such as this one (unprotected, under the umbrella of an unrecognised union, in a workplace with mine security and where the workers themselves are far from home in a strange region) ever taken lightly. Wildcat strikes are probably the most conscious act of sacrifice and courage which anyone can take, driven by anger and desperation and involving the full knowledge that you could lose you job and your family’s livelihood.

In normal times trade unions can be as much a huge bureaucratic machine as a corporation or a state department with negotiations conducted by small teams of no more that a dozen or so far from the thousands of rank-and-file members. Strikes change all that. Suddenly unions are forced to be conduits of their members’ aspirations. Whatever the merits of AMCU as a democratic union or as one with any vision of transformation; whatever the involvement of the Themba Godi’s and whoever else, the workers of Marikana made their choices – to become members of AMCU and risk everything – including their lives – for a better future. For that we owe them more than just pious sympathy. There is a job of mobilisation and movement building to be done.

Almost 40 years ago – in 1973 – workers from companies like the Frame Group in Durban came out in a series of wildcat – then really illegal – strikes. Now this event as celebrated by everyone as part of the revival of the anti-Apartheid mass movement and the birth of a new phase of radical trade unionism – which culminated in the formation of COSATU in 1985.

But in 1973 the media highlighted the threat of violence and called for the restoration of law and order. The apartheid state could not respond with the kind of killings that happened at Marikana because the strikes were in industrial areas around Durban, but they invoked the same idea of ignorant misled workers (then they were seen as ignorant Zulus) and had homeland leader Mangosutho Buthelezi send his emissary, Barney Dladla, to talk to the workers.

While in exile the SACP questioned the bona fides of the strikes, invoking the involvement of Buthelezi to perpetuate the fiction of ‘ignorant Zulus’, because they were not called for or led by the official liberation aligned union body – SACTU. Some in SACTU – SACP circles (like Blade Nzimande today) raised the spectre of liberals and CIA involvement in the new worker formations with an agenda to ‘sideline the liberation movement’. This separation of the ANC and its allies from the early labour movement was to lead to the divisions between the ‘workerist unions’ (independent) and the ‘populist unions’ in the labour movement and was to continue within COSATU until the period of the political negotiations when there was more-or-less an agreement that the ANC would take centre-stage.

How easily people forget when workers forge new movements today. For a long time now the ongoing service delivery revolts throughout the country have failed to register on the lap tops and blackberries of the chattering classes. This is because of the social – and even geographic distance – of the middle classes to the new working classes and the poor.

Now the sight of the police shooting striking workers on TV has brought the real world of current struggles right into the lounges and bedrooms of public opinion. According to statistics supplied by Wits University’s Peter Alexander:

‘In 2010/11 there was a record number of crowd management incidents … During the last three years, 2009-12, there has been an average of 2.9 unrest incidents per day. This is an increase of 40 percent over the average of 2.1 unrest incidents per day recorded for 2004-09. The statistics show that what has been called the Rebellion of the Poor has intensified over the past three years.’

This kind of ‘spontaneous’ revolt is now also extending to the industrial sphere – witness the unprotected strikes in the platinum mines at AngloPlat, Implats and now Lonmin.

So far the strikers have stood firm not only against the police, and Lonmin, threatening dismissal, but also against the media labelling their strike illegal (strikes are not illegal in South Africa, they are only protected or unprotected) and NUM and COSATU rallying behind their ally, the ANC, to stigmatise the strikers and their union as paid by BHP Billiton and/or the Chamber of Mines (why either of these would pay to form a striking, volatile union rather than a sweetheart union like NUM who sits in all their bargaining chambers and acts to respect agreements, makes no sense. But some people choose to believe this nonsense). The SACP even goes on to call on Zuma’s Commission of Enquiry to investigate AMCU and the possibility that it is being financed by business interests to break NUM (that vanguard of the working class) – this from the SACP cabinet minister, Blade Nzimande, who wines and dines with big business every day of his life.

In the midst of our outrage at this brutality let us acknowledge that a new movement is emerging. Such early signs do not as yet indicate something grand and well organised. Movements are notoriously messy and difficult to assign to some kind of predetermined ideological box. We do not know what ups and downs people will go through, but when the seeds of a new movement are being planted it is time to ask what the rest of us can do to help it to grow.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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Leonard Gentle is the director of the International Labour and Research Information Group in South Africa and a former trade union organiser.


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